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What's the deal with the phrase "could care less"?

Whilst growing up, I've always known people (parents etc) to use the phrase "couldn't care less", but I've also come across people who use the phrase "could care less" to mean the same thing (that is, "I do not care at all about that").

To me "couldn't care less" seems a lot more logical. If I couldn't care less about something, that implies I do not care about it at all. In contrast to this, to my mind the phrase "could care less" seems to indicate "I do care about this to some degree at least", but that's definitely not the meaning intended.

What's going on here? Is my (logical) analysis correct or in error?

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  • 1
    Your analysis is correct. Were the people who said "could care less" Americans?
    – Tristan r
    Aug 17, 2014 at 23:01
  • @Tristanr i would bet on it, as could care less seems to an american construction. but it's no less "correct", of course - as long as you're speaking in america
    – user428517
    Aug 18, 2014 at 19:50
  • @Tristanr Mostly Americans, but I've heard people here in the UK say it too. Aug 19, 2014 at 8:01
  • Mark, that's weird and must be new.
    – Tristan r
    Aug 19, 2014 at 11:16
  • related: youtube.com/watch?v=om7O0MFkmpw
    – wim
    Sep 1, 2016 at 16:32

13 Answers 13

50

I've heard it said that "could care less" is meant to be ironic, but I think this is just justification for the bastardisation of an English phrase.

Here we go (from World Wide Words):

There’s a close link between the stress pattern of I could care less and the kind that appears in certain sarcastic or self-deprecatory phrases that are associated with the Yiddish heritage and (especially) New York Jewish speech. Perhaps the best known is I should be so lucky!, in which the real sense is often “I have no hope of being so lucky”, a closely similar stress pattern with the same sarcastic inversion of meaning. There’s no evidence to suggest that I could care less came directly from Yiddish, but the similarity is suggestive. There are other American expressions that have a similar sarcastic inversion of apparent sense, such as Tell me about it!, which usually means “Don’t tell me about it, because I know all about it already”. These may come from similar sources.

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    That certainly would seem to explain it. I still think it's a horrible phrase though and like me, others don't seem to understand it and don't necessary stress it appropriately when speaking it. Aug 13, 2010 at 12:30
  • 4
    I've heard it said that "could care less" is meant to be ironic, but I think this is just justification for the bastardisation of an English phrase. Yes, thank you! I’ve also heard that it is meant to be sarcastic, but that is BS because you cannot use that sarcastically or ironically, it just doesn’t work like actual ironic statements, and certainly not when used with the tone that anyone who has ever said it has used. It is definitely just another example of illiterate people trying to obstinately defend their ignorance instead of acknowledging it and trying to learn something.
    – Synetech
    Jan 2, 2014 at 20:27
45

I also think "couldn't care less" is the correct form since it is more logical. Perhaps this is a meta issue in that precisely those people who say "could care less" could not indeed care less whether they are speaking logically or not.

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    I like your thinking :) Aug 13, 2010 at 12:31
  • I've always thought about this pair of phrases like you explained. Sep 1, 2011 at 17:25
  • 1
    At least in English, we could care less about being logical.
    – Jez
    May 30, 2012 at 14:03
20

You should feel free to say either variety. "Could care less" actually occurs more frequently. It is an entrenched idiom. No fluent speaker will have any trouble understanding what you mean. The Oxford English Dictionary lists both with the same meaning:

care

...

(4). In negative and conditional construction: a. not to care passes from the notion of ‘not to trouble oneself’, to those of ‘not to mind, not to regard or pay any deference or attention, to pay no respect, be indifferent’.

...

(c) Colloq. phr. (I, etc.) couldn't care less: (I am, etc.) completely uninterested, utterly indifferent; freq. as phr. used attrib. Hence couldn't-care-less-ness.

(d) U.S. colloq. phr. (I, etc.) could care less = sense (c) above, with omission of negative.

If you're interested in a linguist's thoughts on the topic, you can start reading this article, and continue with all the linked articles at the bottom of that.


That being said, there are two reasons you might want to avoid "could care less":

  1. There are a lot of people that peeve about "could care less," and if you're worried about offending them maybe you shouldn't use the phrase. (On the other hand, now that you've read this answer and the articles I've linked to, you can confidently tell them that they're actually the ones who are wrong, and "could care less" is perfectly fine, and if they have a problem with it then it's because they are trying to alter the English language.)

  2. When speaking to non-fluent speakers, you should attempt to avoid idioms like "could care less" or "raining cats and dogs". If they aren't familiar with the idiom, they might try to parse it literally.

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    Good link, thanks. However on a personal level (despite being a native English speaker), I find the variant "could care less" more difficult to parse, and it is up to me as the reader to flip that to a negative mentally. Am I peculiar in my quite highly logical mindset? Aug 13, 2010 at 14:44
  • 3
    Idioms by their very nature are unparsable—"a phrase that has a figurative meaning that is comprehended in regard to a common use of that expression that is separate from the literal meaning or definition of the words of which it is made." en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Idiom
    – nohat
    Aug 13, 2010 at 17:05
  • 13
    "if they have a problem with it then it's because they are trying to alter the English language" — firstly, "could care less" is an "entrenched idiom" only in contemporary colloquial American English: it's less common elsewhere and elsewhen. Secondly, what's wrong with that?! Do let's alter the English language and groan at having both the logical "couldn't care less" and illogical "could care less" mean the same thing. It's fine for linguists, in their professional capacity, to only observe language and not alter it, but saying that we users of language shouldn't alter it is just weird. Aug 13, 2010 at 17:16
  • 5
    Yes, people say "could care less," just as people say "ain't", or they say "like" when they mean "approximately". They still sound dumb saying it. "Could care less" should not be used. Oct 16, 2010 at 3:54
  • 7
    +1, and generally agreed, but “No fluent speaker will have any trouble understanding what you mean.” isn’t quite true. Growing up in the UK I’d never heard could care less, so when I moved to the US, it completely confused me the first couple of times I heard it.
    – PLL
    May 23, 2011 at 11:21
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Originally the expression was "I couldn't care less" which, as you pointed out, makes sense. Over time, this was confused and turned into "I could care less" which, of course, doesn't make sense.

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    Could care less seems to be something of an Americanism?
    – 5arx
    Mar 21, 2011 at 23:15
  • 5arx, yes. It is.
    – Tristan r
    Aug 17, 2014 at 23:08
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I've always thought that the newer "could care less" came about by way of casual pronunciation. Phonemes are dropped: /kʊdnt kɛɹ/ morphs into just /kʊd kɛɹ/. That is, the n and t phonemes are elided. Not surprising, since d, n and t are all alveolar consonants. As people heard it and learned the idiom, they merely continued to pronounce it the same way, and then spell it the most obvious way, based on what they thought they heard.

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    That would make sense and would suggest it all boils down to a mistake and/or ignorance. Which is probably accurate... :) Aug 20, 2010 at 10:35
6

Just to confirm by personal experience what Kip has already pretty well established:

I came to the U.S. at 8, and was confused by such things as "I could care less", but I noticed it occurred FAR more commonly than "I couldn't care less", at least when I was a kid. In fact only in the last few years have I heard anyone at all voice dismay over what stood out to me like a sore thumb as a kid.

So you might characterize the question as being between following convention and following logic. Only a naive view of language would lead you to believe that every expression should be logically derivative from its composite parts. In fact natural languages are full of expressions whose meaning cannot be correctly deduced by assembling the parts according to some rules. That's just the way it is, and we'd better get used to it.

That's not to say you shouldn't use "couldn't care less" in speech. But there's no basis for interpreting "could care less" to mean that the person cares more than the bare minimum possible, or for trying to inflict some notion of one being right and the other wrong on other speakers of the language.

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  • "This country" - which country? It's important in this context.
    – slim
    Dec 22, 2011 at 11:53
  • Sorry: that was careless of me. I meant I came to the US at 8.
    – iconoclast
    Dec 23, 2011 at 17:57
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One interpretation I haven't seen here yet is that I'm doing it a favor, whatever it is, by caring just a teeny bit, BUT I COULD CARE LESS. So don't push your luck, it.

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  • Yes, this is how I've understood it as a native speaker of American English. There is a sarcastic edge to pointing out that you care at all when you are really saying you don't care very much. Jan 7, 2015 at 20:55
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Don't use Could care less outside of the USA. In the USA it's just one of those things. Language doesn't have to be logical.

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This matter was considered in detail by XKCD: http://xkcd.com/1576/

enter image description here

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  • Plus ca change, and all that. I watched The Opposite of Sex (1998) last night. About 1hr 17mn in, the "nice, but dumb" gay toyboy says Even Lucia, who I could care less about... To which his older and more sophisticated partner (who's actually a teacher, no less! :) responds with Couldn't care less. Clearly in that context the "non-standard" version is introduced specifically to identify it as the kind of thing only stupid and/or uneducated people might say. Jan 31, 2019 at 18:30
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I think the correct expression is "I could not care less". There are many examples of idioms which are mixed up with other idioms, or simply quoted incorrectly. Most of these don't make any sense, some are quite amusing.

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Both are variants of an idiom expressing the same meaning: I do not care at all. "I could care less" is prevalent in American English, whereas "I could not care less" is prevalent in the UK.

Idioms are not always logical, and this applies both to American and UK English. "Head over heels" is an example of an expression from UK English that conveys just the opposite of its literal meaning.

As mentioned before, irony is a possible reason why "I could care less" actually means its literal opposite. This seems more plausible when you imagine a speaker emphase the "could": "I could care less" (but I really don't).

Source: http://blog.dictionary.com/could-care-less/

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One answer that hasn't been mentioned may be the simpler of the solutions to why "I could care less" is the more prevalent variant. It's easier to say. English is full of contractions and "pronounceable" acronyms. If given similar phrases I would suspect that most people would choose the shorter phrase. Consider the fact that no one has put in "I could not care less" into the mix.

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    By this reasoning, "could", "would" and "should" should be replacing "couldn't", "wouldn't" and "shouldn't" in general, but I don't see that happening. When it comes to etymology, "easier to pronounce" arguments are often presented, yet seldom hold water. What's easy to pronounce is subjective, it differs greatly even between native speakers of the same language. There are many words that could be pronounced in a much "easier" way, yet aren't. And there are languages in which every single word is "utterly unpronounceable", yet thousands of people speak them fluently (Khoisan, anybody?).
    – RegDwigнt
    Nov 30, 2010 at 1:20
-2

I think this is comparable to "I couldn't care less" - I care so little that I could not possibly care even less than that.

"I could care less" - I care quite a lot, but I could choose to care a little less than that.

Both are grammatically correct. They mean the opposite of each other. The first one is more common in my experience.

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  • Almost nobody ever uses the phrase "I could care less" to mean "I care a lot, and potentially could care a lesser amount than now". In order to convey that meaning you'd have to emphasize the could or something. In normal speech "I could care less" means "I couldn't care less". Jul 25, 2014 at 14:11
  • That just seems counter-intuitive to me.
    – ZenLogic
    Jul 25, 2014 at 14:14
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    It may be counter-intuitive, but that's how it's used and that's what people understand. The contradiction between what the words appear to say, and what people mean, is why this particular phrase is subject to so much peeving. People get annoyed when they hear it because it sounds like an error. But linguistically, if enough speakers make an "error" long enough, it stops being an error and becomes just a way people say things. Jul 25, 2014 at 14:57
  • As an analogy: in some languages you use one negative word to negate something (English: Do not eat that). In others, you use two. (French: Ne mange pas ça). In this case, we have an English phrase that is negated with zero negatives. It works because spoken language is not boolean logic. Jul 25, 2014 at 14:59
  • 1
    Mr. Shiny and New 安宇, "I could care less" might be in normal speech in the USA but, it's definitely not in England and the rest of the UK.
    – Tristan r
    Aug 17, 2014 at 23:14

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